About the Aware Blog. Each month we will post an article on a range of topics relating in some way to Depression. A blog post may be the author’s personal experience, a reaction to public events, or views on how better we can support ourselves and others who experience depression or related mood disorders. Each of our posts will be from an individual viewpoint, this means that some blog posts may not reflect official Aware policy.
Jeanne McDonagh was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 25. The symptoms of the illness first manifest when she was aged 15 and in fifth year in school. A full-time Press and PR Manager with the Bar Council of Ireland for the past 16 years, and also a mental health advocate, Jeanne shares her personal thoughts about the importance of mental health education for teenagers.
Blog Entry September 25th by Jeanne McDonagh
I was very lucky up until the point that the illness hit. I was academically good, sporty (captain of the hockey team), had a great set of friends and an active social life. I was very content. When the illness hit, I was suddenly sleeping all the time, even in class. Everything was a huge effort and I had to step back from a lot of activities. I had no idea what was going on or why this was happening.
This would come and go in waves for the next couple of years but became particularly significant after I had finished my Leaving Cert and went to a different college, away from my school friends.
The abiding sense was one of paranoia. I literally thought all my friends were talking about me behind my back, arranging to go out without me, leaving me for another college, making new friends without me. I thought my boyfriend was constantly going off with other women and didn’t want to be with me. All the normal fears and insecurities of youth were amplified many times over. It was a hideous, frightening and tumultuous time.
I gave up sport, crashed academically, found it difficult to make new friends, and considered dropping out. I wasn’t constantly unwell though, and at points when my mood picked up, I would make up for lost time. It was literally a rollercoaster few years. It ended when I dropped out of my MA course due to the illness. I was diagnosed initially with depression but it failed to pinpoint what type, which caused more problems. This all eventually led to my final hospitalisation aged 25 which finally diagnosed the problem and started me on the correct treatment.
As someone who went through a difficult journey as a teenager, I see the real value of educating young people about mental health. It opens up discussions and provides them with correct information. So that if – when – they or someone they know experiences depression, anxiety or a similar challenge, they understand more about it and know how to get help. This dialogue with young people can also feed into home-life and inform the family, which is very important.
I think that if we are taught the correct information it’s a lot easier for people to accept and treat you as someone who just happens to have an illness – not be afraid that they might “catch” it or that you may be violent or any of the other misconceptions that are out there. Even many years after I was diagnosed, “friends” shied away from me as I had a ‘mental illness’.
Earlier diagnosis and treatment in my case might have meant that some of the mistakes and behaviour associated with the illness, which lost me friends and alienated others over those early years, might not have happened. I may have saved myself periods of hospitalisation and suicide attempts which marked my early twenties as I struggled to find out what was wrong. Having a name for the illness gave me clarity and acceptance and allowed me to look into suitable treatments, medication and supports, such as Aware, which enabled me to go about a “normal” life and supported me through rebuilding my life, relationships and work.
There is no doubt that a mental health condition is a tough experience to deal with. What can’t be seen is more easily misunderstood, and when it is viewed through the prism of one person’s unbalanced lens, it is even harder to understand.
To anyone, young or not-so-young, who is going through a tough time, I say remember that the things in your head that you are struggling with are thoughts – not facts. And reach out for the help that is available. The difference for me once the condition was identified and managed was phenomenal – I have gone from wanting to die, to living a full and varied life, working in and maintaining a stressful job, finishing my MA, travelling the world and meeting my husband, and building a happy and healthy relationship with him. I am surrounded by understanding friends, particularly my best friend from that period of my teenage years who stood by me then and throughout all of the illness and remains a loved and adored person in my life.
Some key things to remember if you are struggling:
- Get informed. There are countless resources out there now for people who are going through a depression, and the more you know, the less scary it will seem.
- Talk to those who have the illness and learn from them about how they cope, and what problems to look out for and how best to deal with various issues.
- Get a trusted friend or two to keep watch on your mood and tell you when you are going down (or up) as you are probably not in a position to know yourself yet – they can be more objective. Also don’t be afraid to say the worst thoughts you are having to your doctor or a trusted adult. Other people can help you deal with these and pull you through the worst times.
- Talking therapy (CBT) helps and deals with a lot of the negative thoughts.
- Don’t be afraid of the stigma. It’s other peoples’ ignorance, not a reality.
- Exercise (even though it’s the last thing you want to do), take up meditation (it helps calm racing thoughts), eat healthily, avoid alcohol when you are down, think healthy. The healthier you are, the better able you are to deal with the illness.
- Medication can work for many people and there is no shame in taking a tablet if you are lacking a certain chemical. If you doctor puts you on medication, take the recommended course. It may take a number of weeks to kick in. Be patient.
There is hope: keep trying and keep learning.